Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is the co-chairman of the British Conservative Party and the first female Muslim to serve as a minister in a UK cabinet. This week she gave a controversial speech about the role of faith in public life at a conference in the Vatican to mark 30 years of full diplomatic relations between Britain and the Holy See.
Today I want to make one simple argument. That in order to ensure faith has a proper space in the public sphere, in order to encourage social harmony, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities, more confident in their beliefs. In practice this means individuals not diluting their faith and nations not denying their religious heritage.
If you take this thought to its conclusion then the idea you’re left with is this: Europe needs to become more confident in its Christianity. Let us be honest. Too often there is a suspicion of faith in our continent: where signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; where states won’t fund faith schools; and where faith is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded.
It all hinges on a basic misconception: that somehow to create equality and space for minority faiths and cultures we need to erase our majority religious heritage. But it is my belief that the societies we are, the cultures we’ve created, the values we hold and the things we fight for stem from something we’ve argued over, dissented from, discussed and built up: centuries of Christianity.
The Christian roots of Europe
It’s what the Holy Father called the “unrenounceable Christian roots of [our] culture and civilisation” which shine through our politics, our public life, our culture, our economics, our language and our architecture. You cannot and should not erase these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you can or should erase the spires from our landscapes.
Let me get one thing very clear: I am not saying that everything done in the name of faith has been a blessing for our continent. Too much blood has been shed in the name of religion. But trying to erase this history or blind ourselves to the role of religion on our continent is wrong. We need to realise what drives us, what binds us and what inspires us is a history we are in danger of denying.
I know, in a globalised world, it is easy to think that to relate to others you must water down your identity. But my point today is that being sure of who you are is the only way in which you will be more accommodating of others.
And there is a second strand to this argument. That true confidence has the power to guarantee openness. Because only when you’re content in your own identity only when you realise that the ‘Other’ does not jeopardise who you are can you truly accept and not merely tolerate the presence of difference. Just as the bully bullies because he or she is insecure, so too the state suppresses, marginalises, dictates and dismisses when it feels its identity is at stake.
In the United Kingdom, we have guarded against such fear by recognising the importance of the Established Church and our Christian heritage – our majority faith. And that is what has created religious freedom and a home for people like me, of minority faiths. Majority faiths and minority faiths – as a Muslim who was born and raised in – and now serves – a Christian country, I have experience of both.
What truly enabled me to learn about my faith and to practice it was that my country – the bed over which the river of my faith flowed – had a strong Christian identity. This defined, shaped and gave me confidence in my own faith which, combined with the confidence of my country’s principles and values have since been evident in the decisions I’ve taken as an adult.
Good works come from conviction
A strong sense of Christianity didn’t threaten our Muslim identity – it actually reinforced it. It enabled me to make the case for further interfaith debate, discussion and work. It motivated me to stand up and speak out against anti-Muslim hatred, the persecution of Christians and anti-Semitism. And it inspired me to challenge the growing marginalisation of faith in my country and in Europe.
As I look around the world today, my resolve is strengthened. Where we see faith inspiring, driving and motivating good works is where certainty of conviction is at its strongest. As the Bible teaches us: “For even as the body without the spirit is dead: so also faith without works is dead.”
The Qur’an teaches us something similar – that: “those who believe and do good works are the best of created beings”. We see the proof every day – globally, locally and individually. From the Catholic Church being instrumental in toppling communism to its key role in securing peace in Northern Ireland. From the Catholic Schools in the UK, many of which are outperforming other institutions to the domestic response to the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan and the drought in East Africa. And where day by day, faith sustains people through their darkest, most desperate periods. There is no denying the link between these positive actions and faith.
Don’t dumb down religion
As a UK cabinet minister of the Muslim faith, representing a country with an Anglican Established Church, visiting our friends in the spiritual home of Catholicism you will find no greater champion of understanding between faiths than me.
But I believe that where interfaith dialogue does not work is where faiths are dumbed down in order to find common ground. Just as the European language of Esperanto, which attempted to build a new tongue, neutralises our component languages, a common language between faiths risks watering down the diversity and intensity of our respective religions.
The point is that in so many ways, being sure of your faith adds a layer of strength to society. Confidence in our own beliefs enables us to defend attacks on others. Faith asks you to stand up for your neighbour. As the fourth Muslim caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib said: “Every man is your brother.either your brother in faith or your brother in humanity.”
This is the spirit which inspired Muslims to protect Jews during the Holocaust, which motivated Christians to support Muslims fleeing persecution in Darfur and which led Chief Rabbi Sacks to call for action against persecution in Bosnia. It’s something I’ve been arguing for a long time. That persecution somewhere is persecution everywhere. That if you oppress my neighbour you are oppressing me. That an attack on a gudwara is an attack on a mosque, a church, a temple, a synagogue.
Marginalisation of faith
But the confident affirmation of religion which I have spoken of is under threat. It is what the Holy Father called ‘the increasing marginalisation of religion’ during his speech in Westminster Hall.
I see it in United Kingdom and I see it in Europe: spirituality suppressed; divinity downgraded. Where, in the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, faith is looked down on as the hobby of ‘oddities, foreigners and minorities’. Where religion is dismissed as an eccentricity because it’s infused with tradition. Where we undermine people who attribute good works to their belief and require them to deny it as their motivation. And where faith is overlooked in the public sphere with not even a word about Christianity in the preface of the “European Constitution”.
When I pledged that the new government in the United Kingdom would ‘do God’, in some quarters there was uproar. More telling were the countless comments I received of quiet support a relief that finally someone had said what they had been thinking. This fact alone shows the extent to which religion has been sidelined by some.
Because in parts of Europe there have been misguided beliefs that in order to accommodate people from other backgrounds, we must somehow become less religious or less Christian, that somehow society must level itself out so that faith becomes something that is marginalised and limited to the private confines of one’s home or even one’s mind.
But those calls are not coming from other faith communities. They are coming from two types of people. First, the well-intentioned liberal elite who, conversely, are trying to create equality by marginalising faith in society, who think that the route to religious pluralism is by creating a path of faith-neutrality, who downgrade religion to a mere subcategory in public life.
But look at their supposed level playing field. Its terrain is all but impassable to anyone of belief. One of the arguments of the liberal elite is that faith and reason are incompatible. But they don’t realise, as the Holy Father has argued for many years, that faith and reason go hand in hand. As he said to us in Westminster Hall, “the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilisation.” In other words, just as reason should not be excluded from debates about faith so too spirituality should not be excluded when we look at worldly matters.
Second, there are the anti-religionists, the faith deniers, the people who dine out on free-flowing media and sustain a vocabulary of secularist intolerance, attempting to remove all trace of religion from culture, history and public discourse, while ignoring the fact that people of faith give more to charity and that the number of people going to a place of worship is globally on the up.
The deep intolerance of militant secularisation
For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity and failing to understand the relationship between religious loyalty and loyalty to the state.
That’s why in the 20th Century, one of the first acts of totalitarian regimes was the targeting of organised religion. Why? Because, to them, a religious identity struck at the heart of their totalitarian ideology. In a free market of ideas, they knew their ideology was weak. And with the strength of religions, established over many years, followed by many billions, their totalitarian regimes would be jeopardised.
Our response to militant secularisation today has to be simple: holding firm in our faiths; holding back intolerance, reaffirming the religious foundations on which our societies are built. And reasserting the fact that, for centuries, Christianity in Europe has been inspiring, motivating, strengthening and improving our societies. In public life – driving people to do great things, like setting up schools, creating public services, leading the way in charitable acts. In politics – inspiring parties on both the left and the right. In economics – providing many of the foundations for our market economy and capitalism. In culture – influencing our monuments, our music, our paintings, and our engravings.
Faith must inform public debate
Politicians need to give faith a seat at the table in public life. Not the privileged position of a theocracy, but that of an equal informer of our public debate. So we are not afraid to acknowledge when the debate derives from a religious basis. And not afraid to take onboard – and take on – the solutions offered up by religion. Politicians must also not be afraid to speak out when we think people who speak in the name of faith have got it wrong.
I am not saying that faith leaders should have a monopoly on morality. Because, of course, as our Prime Minister David Cameron said, there are Christians who don’t live by a moral code and there are atheists and agnostics who do. But for people who do have a faith, their faith can be a helpful prod in the right direction.
Therefore, I’m arguing that religion needs a role when we look at the problems today. So that even the most committed atheist can find that those who are committed to religion have something to offer and that faith can be good for society, good for communities and good for those who choose to follow a faith. When religion has a role in public life, it enables us to look at our economy and refer to the Christian principles on which our markets were founded. It means we can take solace from teachings such a Rerum Novarum and Caritas in Veritate, which offer up answers for creating moral markets.
It means we can look at our social problems and be inspired by Catholic Social Teaching [by] looking at our welfare system and thinking, how does this impact on human dignity; [by] looking at social breakdown and thinking, are we reinforcing responsibility between citizens; [by] looking at governance and thinking, are we relying on large organisations to do what smaller units could achieve — all the while thinking and remembering that many of our values — loving our neighbours, acting as the Good Samaritan, supporting and championing the family unit, doing to others as you would be done by — are Biblical, spiritual and religious in their origin.
People need to realise that, in our continent and beyond, Christianity’s teachings and values are as permanent as Westminster Abbey as indelible as Da Vinci’s Last Supper and as solid as Christ the Redeemer and that Christianity is as vital to our future as it is to our past. Our two states have lots to learn and much to teach and I have hope, and yes faith, that others will continue with us on this path.
This speech has been edited for length. For the full speech, visit Sayeeda Warsi’s website.